Barbara Bush’s Greatest Loss

She was forever changed by the death of her daughter Robin, at age 3.

Barbara Bush
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

It would be the first vivid memory of his life.

George W. Bush, then in the second grade, had been dispatched by his teacher to help carry a Victrola phonograph back to the principal’s office. He and his classmate Bill Sallee were lugging it down a covered walkway when George spotted his parents’ car pulling into the parking lot. They had been away on one of their frequent trips to New York. “I remember the pea-green car,” George W. Bush told me in an interview 65 years later. “I saw him pull up. I thought I saw Robin in the back.” He asked his teacher if he could go say hello to his parents and his little sister.

He knew Robin had been sick, but he had no idea that she might die. She wasn’t with them, his parents told him in the car. She was never coming home.

This article was adapted from The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty, by Susan Page.

Decades later, in an interview in the living room of her Houston home, Barbara Bush was still torn over whether as parents they had made the right decision, trying to protect their young son by not being candid about what was going on. “We should have told him that she was very, very sick,” she told me, tears welling in her eyes. I apologized for making her cry. “That’s normal,” she replied. “Don’t worry about that.” A pastel portrait of Robin was hanging on the wall, within her line of sight. “He’s never really forgiven me for that, or us. I can understand that. We just didn’t know what to do. He was a little boy.”

Robin Bush’s illness and her death from leukemia, at the age of 3, would forever change Barbara Bush. The experience would steel her resolve and broaden her understanding of the ways the innocent can be caught and crushed by the unfairness of life. It would leave an indelible stamp on her about what matters, and what doesn’t. It would cement a bond between her and her firstborn son that would last until Barbara’s passing. And it would demonstrate the fierce maternal determination to protect her children at all costs that would define the rest of her life.

Barbara Bush set one rule: No crying in front of Robin.

The little girl was very sick from the start. When she was checked into Sloan Kettering hospital in New York, the doctors there were sure her pediatrician back in Midland, Texas, had gotten the blood test wrong; Robin’s white-blood-cell count was just too high to be accurate. But when they retested her blood, they registered the same results. It was the highest white-blood-cell count the experts had ever seen.

The treatments were torturous, the odds they would succeed remote. “How we hated bone-marrow tests,” Barbara Bush recalled, an agonizing procedure even for adults. Robin would be awake as doctors used a biopsy needle to collect a sample of marrow from a bone. Sometimes Robin would be “panicked, crying,” George Bush said. There were endless, painful blood transfusions, and as the hospital had requested, a parade of family members and friends journeyed to Sloan Kettering to replace the pints of blood that Robin used. More than once, Barbara would be called to help when her sister or a friend passed out while donating blood.

Her mother would spend just about every waking moment by Robin’s side, while her husband shuttled between New York and Texas, where he was scrambling to launch his new oil venture.

Every morning when he was back in Midland, George Bush would drop by First Presbyterian Church at 6:30 a.m. to pray for Robin. In the beginning, only the custodian was around to notice. Then the minister began showing up to join him. The two men never talked. They would sit quietly until Bush felt ready to face the day. At the time, Bush was teaching a Sunday-school class for teenagers at the church. He often would arrive disheveled and unshaven, with no lesson prepared. Instead, he would sit with the small group of students and talk about life, death, war, faith, hope, and despair. There was no stricture against crying there.

Barbara Bush didn’t want her little girl unsettled by seeing the adults in her life in tears. But George Bush, a man of open emotion, found it almost impossible to comply. Again and again, he would tell Robin he had to go to the bathroom and then step into the hallway to regain his composure. “We used to laugh and wonder if Robin thought he had the weakest bladder in the world,” Barbara Bush said. “Not true. He just had the most tender heart.”

He knew how hard it was on Barbara to be the stoic, to be the one in control. Years later, George Bush wrote a revealing aside in a letter to a constituent in his congressional district who had been diagnosed with cancer. “Someone had to look into Robin’s eyes and give her comfort and love,” he said, “and somehow, Paul, I didn’t have the guts.”

Barbara Bush became part of the hospital’s community of parents, an involuntary club bound by pain and hope. “We understood each other,” she said. The journey to Texas had broadened Barbara’s horizons from her days of growing up in affluent Rye and attending boarding school at Ashley Hall, in South Carolina. The long days in the hospital ward were eye-opening in a whole new dimension.

She realized how lucky she was in some ways. She had a stable home and a supportive spouse. They had health insurance and family assets. Some of the other mothers were dealing with family fissures and financial strains, which made their ordeal even harder. Sloan Kettering didn’t charge those who couldn’t pay, but there were other expenses and dislocations that debilitated some.

“I remember one precious little boy named Joey, whose mother had a big family in upstate New York,” she said. “Her husband was a laborer and was trying to cope with schools, bills, and meals. She worried all the time.” Joey’s mom rented a cheap room in the Bronx and would commute to the hospital by bus and subway each day, wearing her bedroom slippers for comfort.

“As Joey’s time drew near, I met her one day in the parents’ room and asked about her son. ‘Joey’s bad, Barbara,’ she said, then unintentionally mangled a Bible verse”; Barbara realized she found her version of it comforting. “‘Do you remember in the Bible where it says, “Let the little children suffer and they will come unto me”? Joey is really suffering.’” (Years later, Barbara Bush would remember Joey when Ronald McDonald House Charities, which provides housing and support for the families of hospitalized children, asked her to help headline their annual fundraising dinner. She accepted. What a difference the organization could have made for Joey’s mom if it had existed then, she thought.)

Cancer proved to be a terrible equalizer. Neither money nor power nor position had given Robin any more refuge from leukemia than Joey had.

Like every other parent at the hospital, the Bushes were desperate, ready to grasp at straws. One day, several friends phoned George Bush after hearing Paul Harvey on his radio program describe a doctor in Kansas who had discovered a cure for leukemia. After five frantic hours, Bush managed to get through to the doctor on the phone. He had been swamped by calls from parents who would do anything to save their children, but all he had to offer was one more unproven medicine then being tested. Barbara Bush later chastised Paul Harvey for causing such heartbreak. “He raised our hopes only to have them dashed,” she said.

True to form, Robin’s disease did go into remission for a time. Once that summer, they traveled to the family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, and Robin got to see her brothers. Then she made a brief trip to Texas, the farthest the hospital had let a leukemia patient go. It was a chance for her to see her home in Midland, and for her family and friends to see her, one more time.

Many in Midland shied away, worried that leukemia might be contagious. Barbara Bush never forgot the pain that caused her. Later, as first lady, she would make a point of embracing HIV/AIDS patients at a time when many were skittish.

But before long Robin had to return to the hospital in New York, her health failing, the treatments no longer working. Robin caught pneumonia and spent time in an oxygen tent. Her legs were covered with bruises. There were dozens of painful open sores on her torso. She was bleeding internally. Barbara and the doctors called George Bush in Texas to discuss one more operation. “I said, ‘No, we’ve done enough to her,’” Bush told them. There was nothing more that could be done. “We thought it was time to let her go.”

He flew back to New York. By the time he arrived, Robin had slipped into a coma.

“One minute she was there, and the next she was gone,” Barbara Bush said. “I truly felt her soul go out of that beautiful little body.” Her mother combed Robin’s curly blond hair for one last time. Barbara was 28 years old when her daughter died in her arms.

“Like an oak in the wind, she was tossed, but she would not be moved,” the author Richard Ben Cramer would write of Barbara’s forbearance. She had accomplished her mission. She had never cried in front of her frail little girl, not once. Now the tears could flow, and they did.

The Bushes already had decided to donate Robin’s body to research in hopes that it would speed understanding of the disease, that it might help save some other child. While she had been sick, they had overheard grieving family members in the next room berate a doctor who had asked if they would give their child’s body to science. They took a lesson from that, and applied it when their time came to answer that hard question.

Robin’s burial would be delayed to allow time for the researchers to examine her. George and Barbara scheduled a memorial service for family and a handful of friends at Christ Church in Greenwich before they returned to Midland. They were at the home of George’s parents, getting ready in an upstairs bedroom. They could hear the others gathering on the first floor. Suddenly, Barbara’s stoicism evaporated. She couldn’t face anyone, she told her husband. She couldn’t do it. She was done.

George looked out the window and saw Barbara’s sister and brother-in-law, Martha and Walt Rafferty, walking up the driveway. “Sure, and with the O’Raffertys, it is going to be a grand wake!” he told her. It was the sort of deliberately goofy comment that could make her laugh, that would help her to hold it together one more time.

At the moment, they were all reeling. No one was sleeping through the night.

In those first weeks, young Georgie struggled. Not long after his sister’s death, he went over to the house of a friend, Randall Roden, for a sleepover, but he had such terrifying nightmares that his mother had to come over to the house to comfort him.

Barbara Bush herself would wake up with a wave of grief so fierce that the pain felt physical. During the day, she hated it when friends avoided saying Robin’s name, as though the little girl could or should be forgotten. She was exhausted by condolence calls from people she hardly knew, and by the awkward comments some would make in an effort to comfort her. Once, walking into the living room, she got a glimpse of a friend practicing sad expressions in a mirror; Barbara backed out of the room and came in again, more noisily. “At least it wasn’t your firstborn and a boy at that,” a visitor said. Barbara was speechless and enraged. “I just needed somebody to blame,” she said.

A study in the 1970s estimated that as many as 90 percent of bereaved couples found themselves in serious marital difficulty within months after the death of a child. The most serious problems developed when the mother and the father coped differently with their grief. Often fathers would take refuge in their work and try not to dwell on the loss, the researchers found, while mothers wanted to talk about their child, to express their pain. That disconnect would fray their bonds, sometimes irreparably.

But George Bush defied that stereotype of his gender and his times. It was Barbara who wanted to rush through a grieving process that could not be hurried; he refused to let her do that. “I wanted to get back to real life, but there is a dance that you have to go through to get there,” she said. “When I wanted to cut out, George made me talk to him, and he shared with me.” He reminded her that others were feeling the same pain she felt. He felt it, as did their son, and their relatives back east, and their friends in Texas. Night after night, he would hold her as she cried herself to sleep.

Robin’s illness deepened her young mother’s faith, and it made her both harder and softer. On the inside, Barbara Bush emerged more aware of the fragility of life and the universality of grief. On the outside, she developed a survivor’s armor, and with it even less patience for the general boneheadedness of people. She had never been one to suffer fools gladly. Now her impatience was sharpened, even if those fools were well meaning. She had never paid much attention to what she wore or how her hair looked. Now she cared even less.

And she clung to her eldest child.

He was the only one of the children who could share with his parents his own memories of Robin. “I feel very close to George, very,” Barbara Bush told me. “He went all through the Robin thing. He really took care of me.”

During the fall of 1953, after being away for most of the previous six months in New York, she focused on Georgie and little Jeb. “Mother’s reaction was to envelop herself totally around me,” George W. Bush recalled. “She kind of smothered me and then recognized that it was the wrong thing to do.” One breezy day, Barbara was in her bedroom when she overheard Mike Proctor, the boy who lived across the street, ask Georgie if he wanted to come over and play. He did, he replied, but he couldn’t leave his mother. She needed him. “That started my cure,” Barbara Bush said. “I realized I was too much of a burden for a little 7-year-old boy to carry.”

This article was adapted from The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty, by Susan Page.